Squinting into the setting sun, Danny Sullivan stood in the
infield of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Saturday and
spoke to a crowd that could help determine the future of Formula
One racing in the U.S.--300 kids ages eight to 11. "I'm going to
find the next American Formula One champion," Sullivan, the 1985
Indy 500 winner and a former F/1 driver, told the young fans. "It
might even be one of you."
For the past two years Sullivan, 54, has been working to prepare
young Americans to compete in F/1, a seemingly quixotic task in
today's motor-sports world. At Sunday's U.S. Grand Prix at Indy,
which was won by--who else?--six-time and reigning world champion
Michael Schumacher of Germany, there was not one American among
the 20 drivers. The last U.S. driver to compete in F/1 was
Michael Andretti, in 1993, and his woebegone season (he failed to
finish the last three races of his season) only reinforced what
observers on the other side of the pond still suspect: Americans
don't have what it takes to compete in what the rest of the
planet considers the premier racing series.
But the real reason that Americans haven't been competitive in
F/1 since Andretti's father, Mario, won the World Championship in
1978 can be summed up in one word: NASCAR. Stock car racing has
become so popular in the last quarter century that virtually
every young driver in the U.S. over that span has wanted to
become the next Richard Petty or Dale Earnhardt or Jeff Gordon.
Furthermore, once a driver finds success in NASCAR, it's hard to
leave. Ask Gordon. A big F/1 fan--Gordon flew to Barcelona
between NASCAR races earlier this year to attend the Spanish
Grand Prix--the four-time Winston Cup champ is frequently named
by F/1 drivers as the one Yank they'd like to see try their
circuit because of his excellent hand-eye coordination and
obvious driving skills.
Gordon, 32, has said that he would have jumped at the chance when
he was younger, but now he's shackled by NASCAR's golden
seatbelts: a monster contract, dozens of sponsors and an
off-the-charts Q-rating. "I'm seeing more and more demand for an
American driver in F/1," Gordon says of F/1's owners, "but they
want an American driver with a name."
Sullivan hopes to change that. In 2002 he joined with the
sports-drink company Red Bull to launch a development program for
U.S. F/1 drivers. Sullivan works the go-kart and sprint-car
circuits for 17- and 18-year-olds with the skills to pilot the
world's most technologically advanced race cars. Then he takes
them to compete in Europe. Sullivan and Red Bull currently have
20 drivers in their stable, most of whom are competing in
European F/1 feeder series such as Formula Renault. The program's
brightest prospect is an aptly named 21-year-old, Scott Speed. At
week's end Speed, a native of San Jose, led two Renault Series.
"My goal is to have Scott or one of the other Red Bull drivers
running near the front of F/1 by 2007," says Sullivan. "If the
sport is ever going to really make it in the States, there needs
to be a successful American driver."